Race weighs heavily on my mind these days, not just because it’s Black History Month but mostly because my work in education reform is focused on the structural inequities in a school system and country that is increasingly Black and Brown.
More and more, however, I see other basic institutions of democracy—the voting booth, policing, courts and prisons—being systematically perverted to perpetuate inequity and it falls on all of us to reflect more deeply on our role in allowing social inequity to persist.
It’s both accurate and easy to call out conservatives and Republicans for racist tactics like voter suppression, gerrymandering and overt appeals to prejudice—the so-called “Southern Strategy.” But liberals and Democrats have much to answer for, as well.
I recently saw the new documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” based on the writings of James Baldwin and featuring extensive footage of the civil rights movement. Framed by the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, the film powerfully evokes the electrifying hopes and paralyzing fears of the times.
One of the most compelling moments in the film was a clip from the Dick Cavett show where James Baldwin responds to Yale philosophy professor Paul Weiss, who had criticized Baldwin for being overly divisive on racial issues. In a few sentences, Baldwin brilliantly distinguishes between “individual” and “institutional” racism. Baldwin says:
I don’t know what most white people in this country feel. But I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions. I don’t know if white Christians hate Negroes or not, but I know we have a Christian church that is white and a Christian church that is black. I know, as Malcolm X once put it, the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday. That says a great deal for me about a Christian nation. It means I can’t afford to trust most white Christians, and I certainly cannot trust the Christian church.
I don’t know whether the labor unions and their bosses really hate me—that doesn’t matter—but I know I’m not in their union. I don’t know whether the real estate lobby has anything against black people, but I know the real estate lobby is keeping me in the ghetto. I don’t know if the board of education hates black people, but I know the textbooks they give my children to read and the schools we have to go to. Now this is the evidence. You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my wife, my woman, my sister, my children on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen.
Baldwin is saying that racist motives of individuals are both shameful and tragic, but systemic racism driven by our institutions is a moral crime of a higher order and we are all implicated.
Liberals and Progressives Remain Silent
Consider public education, which emerged from a liberal 19th-century ideology, but today is subject to powerful liberal interest groups that limit educational opportunities for poor Black and Brown children by fighting public school choice. Liberals and progressives remain silent while desperate mothers like Kelly Bolar Williams fight residency rules that segregate children by race and income and deny poor children an equal education.
Progressives acquiesce to a locally-based funding system that spends more on wealthy kids than on poor kids and we tolerate schools for low-income Black and Brown kids that we would never accept for our own. When studies show unconscious bias against kids of color by White teachers starting in pre-school, we have done little to diversify a field that is 82 percent White while serving a population that is more than 50 percent students of color.
At the suggestion of a friend, I also watched “13th,” an excellent new documentary on Netflix about the mass incarceration of Black men, who make up just 6 percent of our population but 33 percent of our inmates. According to the film, 1 in 17 White males will serve time, compared to 1 in 3 Black males.
The modern era of mass incarceration began with Nixon, Rockefeller and Reagan, but it was also driven by Clinton-era crime policies, which the former president has admitted. Public sector unions, like the California prison guards, are also to blame. Recent trends show reductions in the overall prison population, but extreme inequities remain and the roots of the problem start in school, where kids of color face disproportionately harsh discipline.
In yet another sign that our institutions are failing, I read in the Washington Post that Black parents are enrolling their children in workshops to teach them how to safely deal with police. We spend billions of dollars recruiting, training and supervising police to deal fairly and humanely with Black people, yet Black parents apparently feel they have to take matters into their own hands.
And who can blame them? Despite irrefutable video evidence of unwarranted killings, brutality and improper conduct, police chiefs and prosecutors seem unable or unwilling to hold abusive police officers accountable. We rightfully honor uniformed heroes who protect us every day, but when it’s time to weed out the few bad apples, police close ranks, union leaders escalate, politicians across the spectrum duck in fear, and justice is denied.
Progressives should band together to aggressively fight blatant racism, but that cannot excuse our collective inaction in addressing institutional racism. Resistance begins with reflection.